In the Kulanu Canada Board Meeting on August 10, 2023, Joseph Edward shared stories of his personal family history of Bangladeshi Jews. Andria Spindel, Executive Director of Kulanu Canada, introduced him and asked him follow-up questions.
There’s so much joy in the Ugandan Jewish experience, but this is not to say there aren’t hardships, too.
By Shoshana McKinney
Jul 10, 2023
I’m a Jewish African American born to Jews by choice in Southern California. As a kid, I was almost always asked to explain or qualify my Jewish identity when meeting a new person in a Jewish space. Other kids would give me the “Jew quiz” while adults at synagogue would give my mother the third degree, so desperate they were to understand how she wound up there. My Yiddishkeit required regular and articulable validation.
Defending my Judaism unequivocally made me a better Jew. I had to get clear on my values and beliefs and owning my place in the Jewish story. Still, I am so happy to pass this legacy down to my son with less drama.
We just had to move to Uganda to get there.
Back in 2020, when my Ugandan Jewish husband couldn’t come back to America because of the pandemic travel restrictions, I had to pack us up and fly over to Uganda, where we have lived ever since. You would be absolutely correct if you imagined a scene of a clueless American being called a weak softie because her keyboard-clicking hands don’t have the calluses required to work a garden hoe for more than 15 minutes. My life is basically the African version of “Green Acres.” Goodbye, city life!
Rural Uganda life requires developing a new set of skills, like remembering to add my 3-year-old son’s de-worming on the calendar and using a pill cutter to chop his weekly anti-malaria pill. All of the life forms thrive here — the ones we like to post on Instagram and the ones requiring medicated bath soap.
Luckily, it takes a village to raise a child, and that is truer than ever here. We live on a family compound with several houses belonging to grandparents, aunties, uncles and even a guest house. My husband built our house from the ground up. Our living room is always open and our extended family is always welcome, and the women in our close-knit family take a soft, nurturing approach. It also means that I am called on to be a motherly figure to any one of my son’s eight cousins at a moment’s notice. (I keep a hoard of bubble-gum lollipops on deck for just that.)
Indigenous Ugandans have been practicing Judaism for over a century. The Jewish community here has around 6,000 members and 11 officially established synagogues — three Orthodox, seven Conservative and a Chabad in the capital. The Jews originate from the area around Mbale, Uganda. Community meals like Passover seders, Purim Seudahs and Shabbat lunches are expected from each synagogue. The Ugandan chuppah is made of sugar cane poles and we eat it at the end of the wedding. There is also an annual sukkah contest where every family can participate; the over-abundance of banana leaves is put to good use.
It’s rare for a Jewish family to celebrate a holiday or a simcha without at least 20 other friends or neighbors in attendance. All the Jews in the area have known and married into each other’s families for generations.
There is only one Jewish primary school and one Jewish secondary school; both offer boarding. But both schools are inconveniently located along dirt roads in the steep, windy, bumpy hills near the mountains approaching Mount Elgon. Instead, my son goes to a preschool that is technically a Christian school, but thankfully it’s quite secular — though maybe not for long. He’s about to teach his classmates the Ugandan melody of “Lecha Dodi” since I’m learning it for a stint and have been singing it compulsively. I’m staying committed to learning more Hebrew Shabbat songs and singing together with the kids all week long so that the songs are deeply ingrained. (Speaking of singing, song parodies can be made by substituting the original lyrics for the words “poo poo.” To my son, I’m instantly considered a comedic genius. But we don’t do this with Jewish songs, thou shalt not.)
Bounding around through the corn and cassava fields, I’m often reminding my little one to keep his kippah on. Wearing a kippah is something my husband also does almost every day. To my relief, I feel completely safe with them doing this in Uganda. Unlike in my former stomping ground of Dallas, no armed guards are outside the synagogue. Nobody here has ever thought about security outside of the possibility of theft of the silver Judaica in the sanctuary.
On our Shabbat walks to synagogue, we pass by wildflowers, a symphony of birds, baby goats, beautiful butterflies and dragonflies. My heart is warmed by these simple treasures. Holding my son’s sweet little hand in these moments feels like such an honor and the highest blessing.
And then we arrive at a synagogue where everyone is Black. This is a rare time that my identity is normalized in a Jewish space. It’s all I could have ever wanted for my son: to be comfortable in his own skin and feel Judaism as an inextricable part of his identity as he grows up.
There’s so much joy in the Ugandan Jewish experience, but this is not to say there aren’t hardships, too. Several of the other Jewish moms who sit next to me in the women’s section of our synagogue have completed a week of backbreaking work in the vegetable fields for only $2 per day. The months of January to March are very hard for most mothers who are waiting for the harvest to come and living off of meager scraps. Some of these moms are food insecure and come to synagogue specifically for the community meal after the prayer service. They bring all of their children to come and eat, watching that not even a grain of rice is wasted.
Most women in the community don’t have running water and collect rainwater from their houses. Whenever that isn’t enough, they have to take their yellow jerricans to the ground water pump, carrying 10 or more liters of water at a time. There are also women so poor they are immobilized for days each month due to lack of feminine hygiene products.
I miss being able to get all of the matzah and kosher wine I want at Passover, like I did back in America. Chabad in the capital city of Kampala is a five-hour drive away and they ration their Passover products — only one sheet of matzah per person at the seder. And I miss not having to make separate stops to buy professionally raised eggs and live chickens for kashrut observance. How convenient it was to get kosher packages of boneless, skinless meat in the grocery store!
Still, discovering the Jewish community of Uganda was like discovering a long-lost cousin I never knew existed. It’s my hope to own houses in both Uganda and America one day so I can continue my work in connecting both of these Jewish communities.
Uganda really does feel like home now. Loving family members, warm culture and natural beauty come together in the life I have always wanted.
Shoshana McKinney is a traditional Jewish mom and stepmom living in Uganda full-time since 2021. She is the executive director of Tikvah Chadasha Foundation Uganda and a columnist. Find her on Facebook.
The Jews of Jamaica make up a small but vibrant religious community centered today in the capital of Kingston. While the core of the community traces its ancestry to the Iberian peninsula, and the Jewish exodus that began in the late 15th century, Jamaican Jews today come from Poland, France, Italy, Africa, Israel, Turkey, and many other places. They have their own unique recipes for the most beloved traditional Jamaican dishes — including ackee and saltfish, fried bammy (a cassava flatbread), breadfruit, patties, potato pudding, dukono pastry and, of course, jerk chicken — and its main synagogue is one of only a handful in the world with a sand floor. While some 22,000 Jews once lived on the island, the Jewish population today numbers just about 450 people.
Many Jamaican Jews trace their origins to Portugal, where their ancestors were forcibly converted to Catholicism by King Manuel I in 1497. Although legally prohibited from emigrating, many still found ways to leave, moving to Spanish-Portuguese Jewish communities in Hamburg, London, Livorno (Italy), Amsterdam — and especially Bayonne, an the area of southwest France near the Iberian peninsula. Over the next 100 years, some of these former conversos (forced converts) came from Amsterdam to the Caribbean — including Jamaica, settling in Port Royal, Spanish Town, Montego Bay, and Kingston, as well numerous smaller towns throughout the island. Although Jamaica was then a Spanish colony, it was controlled by Christopher Columbus’ family, who refused to allow the Inquisition to establish a base on the island. Practicing Judaism was technically illegal, but there was no governmental mechanism for prosecuting suspected heretics.
After the British colonized Jamaica in 1655, another wave of Jewish immigrants arrived. Under the British, it became legal to practice Judaism, which in turn led to the establishment of the island’s first synagogue in Port Royal, a bustling commercial center known as a home base for pirates. Little is known about this synagogue, which was destroyed along with much of the city in an earthquake and tsunami in 1692.
Just across the bay from Port Royal is the Hunt’s Bay Cemetery, the oldest Jewish burial ground in Jamaica. Seven graves in the cemetery bear the skull and crossbones, leading some to suggest that there were Jewish pirates looting Spanish ships. According to this theory, the Jewish pirates of Jamaica were Spanish and Portuguese Jews who fled the Inquisition and attacked Spanish shipping out of a desire for revenge. The Jewish pirate mentioned most frequently was Moses Cohen Henriques, who was able to steal shipments of gold and silver from Spanish boats off of the coast of what is today Cuba in 1628. Henriques also set up his own pirate Island off the coast of Brazil and worked with Captain Henry Morgan in Jamaica after 1654. But much of this history is undocumented and popular writers have exaggerated or invented much of the story.
The Jamaican Jewish community thrived during the 18th and early 19th centuries. Under British rule, Jews flourished by selling sugar, vanilla, tobacco, gold, rum, and other products. But by the early 20th century, the economy began a slow decline, and many Jamaican Jews emigrated to the United States, England and Australia. At the community’s peak in 1881, approximately 22,000 Jews lived among Jamaica’s 580,000 residents.
Today, there are an estimated 200-450 Jews in a total population of over 3 million, most of them concentrated in Kingston. For roughly a century since its establishment following a merger of two other communities in 1921, the Shaare Shalom Synagogue in downtown Kingston was the only functioning synagogue in the country. (Chabad opened a center in the tourist destination Montego Bay in 2014.) The synagogue property includes a Jewish heritage center and a memorial garden, whose relocated tombstones date back to the 18th century. The ark contains 13 Torah scrolls, many of them from other synagogues in Jamaica that closed or merged.
Shaare Shalom is one of only a handful of functioning synagogues in the world with sand floors, many of them in the Caribbean. Sand floor synagogues typically have a wood base covered in sand. Since a good deal of sand is lost through attrition, the supply requires replenishing every number of years.
The origin of this practice is shrouded in mystery, with the explanations offered ranging from practical to historic to midrashic. The custom may have originated in Amsterdam, where sand was used to dry mud on people’s shoes. Others have suggested that sand symbolizes the terrain of the Sinai Desert through which the Israelites wandered for 40 years after the Exodus. Some also believe that sand symbolizes God’s promise to Abraham to make the Jews as populous as the sands of the sea. But the most common explanation is that the practice originated in the early 1600s in Brazil, where conversos who had returned to Judaism were trying to retain their ancestors’ traditions while subject to the hostile eyes of ecclesiastical authorities.
Many observers have commented on the similarities between Judaism and Rastafarianism, a religion that developed in Jamaica in the 1930s and was popularized by Bob Marley and reggae music. Some branches of Rastafarianism focus on the Hebrew Bible and emphasize themes of freedom and justice. The Rastafarians also believe that the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie was the messiah, based on his being a descendant of King Solomon. This explains the use of shared symbols common to both Judaism and Rastafarianism, including the Star of David and the Lion of Judah.
In 1969, the Jewish community established an international school called Hillel Academy as a way to stop fighting among local Jewish leaders. The academy is considered among the best in the country and is Jamaica’s largest international school, with 700 students from over 40 countries.
Several Jamaican Jews rose to political prominence in the mid-20th century. Neville Ashenheim served as the first ambassador to the United States after Jamaica won its independence from Britain in 1962, serving in the post until 1967. (Ashenheim’s great-grandfather, Lewis Ashenheim, was the editor of the first Jewish newspaper in the West Indies.) Mayer Matalon was one of the most important advisors to the Jamaican government in the 1970s and owned many businesses, especially in construction. Matalon’s brother, Eli Matalon, served in several government posts, including mayor of Kingston, minister of education, and minister of national security and justice.
But the 1970s saw a particularly drastic exodus of Jamaican Jews after then Prime Minister Michael Manley — seen by some as a leader in the style of Fidel Castro — moved the country toward socialism and flirted with revolution. Under Manley’s rule, much of the Jamaican elite left the country. When the 1980 election brought Edward Seaga to power, significant numbers of those elites returned. But many others did not, including many of the leaders of the Jewish community. Though the community today is but a fraction of its former size, its impact on Jamaica endures.
Watch how one man independently maintains and preserves an important part of Jewish history in Kochi, located in the state of Kerala in India.
Cochin Jews, also called Malabar Jews, are the oldest group of Jews in India, with possible roots claimed to date to the time of King Solomon.
They were in Kerala for more than 2000 years. After the formation of Israel in 1948, around 2500 members of the Cochin Jews migrated to Israel
Today there are 27 Jews remaining in Cochin.
The diaspora from Cochin are a community with more than 4000 members in Israel today.